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The Temptations of Ball Tampering: Steve Smith’s Australian Team in South Africa

There was an audacity about it, carried out with amateurish callowness. As it turned out Australian batsman Cameron Bancroft, besieged and vulnerable, had been egged on by Australian cricket captain Steve Smith and the Australian leadership to do the insufferable: tamper with the ball.

Before the remorseless eagle eyes of modern cameras, Bancroft, in the third Test against South Africa in Cape Town, was detected possessing yellow adhesive tape intended to pick up dirt and particles that would, in turn, be used on the ball’s surface. This, it was assumed, was intended to give Smith’s team an advantage over an increasingly dominant South Africa.

The reaction from the head of Cricket Australia, John Sutherland, was one of distress. “It’s a sad day for Australian cricket.” Australian veteran cricketers effused horror and disbelief. Former captain Michael Clarke wished this was “a bad dream”.

One of the greatest purveyors of slow bowling in the game’s history, Shane Warne, expressed extreme disappointment “with the pictures I saw on our coverage here in Cape Town. If proven the alleged ball tampering is what we all think it is – then I hope Steve Smith (Captain) [and] Darren Lehmann (Coach) do the press conference to clean this mess up!”

Indignation, not to mention moral and ethical shock, should be more qualified. This, after all, is a murky area of cricket. An injunction against ball tampering may well be enforced but players have been engaged in affecting the shape and constitution of that red cherry since the game took hold on the English greens.

Festooned with regulations, norms and customs, the battle between bat and ball has often featured attempts to alter, adjust and manipulate the latter. Foreign substances have been added to one side of the ball; conventional additions of saliva and sweat are also used to give a magical sense of movement on its delivery to the batsman. Cricket, as ever, is a game of aerodynamic and environmental challenges, conditioned by human agency.

The line between tampering and permissible manipulation is, to that end, squidgy, even vague. Article 42.3 of the ICC Standard Test Match Playing Conditions covers the sins associated with ball tampering. “If the umpires together agree that the deterioration of the ball is inconsistent with the use it has received, they shall consider that there has been a contravention of this Law.”

The deterioration of the ball, to that end, is salient. Bowling innovations, for one, have triggered accusations and warnings from authorities bound by conservative instincts. The emergence of reverse swing, pioneered by Safraz Nawaz and reaching peak perfection with Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, caused endless grief to practitioners and commentators.

Accepted now as a product of skill, even genius, it was a perceived illegality of tampering made good. As Simon Rae would note ruefully in his excellent It’s Not Cricket on describing another exponent of reverse swing – the majestic Imran Khan – the former Pakistan captain had a certain “dedication to bringing the ball’s condition into harmony with his own ambitions for its movement in the air”.

Such tussles have taken place alongside the confected illusion that cricket is the Olympian summit of gentlemanly interaction and fair competition. The Preamble to the Laws – Spirit of Cricket reads like a sacred document chiselled on pristine marble. “Cricket owes much of its appeal and enjoyment to the fact that it should be played not only according to the Laws, but also within the Spirit of Cricket.” Heed, it would seem, that incorporeal creature, the hovering spirit.

Stress is also placed on the captain, who assumes “major responsibility for ensuring fair play”, though it “extends to all players, umpires and especially in junior cricket, teachers, coaches and parents.”

The field of battle has however, yielded its fair share of contraventions suggesting that cricket’s spirit was already well and truly disappointed before the antics of Smith’s men. To tamper, in short has proven an irresistible temptation, whether biting the seam (Pakistan’s theatrically foolish Shahid Afridi in 2010) or energetic zip rubbing (South Africa’s conscience clear Faf du Plessis in 2013).

Even demigods have been accused. India’s sanctified Sachin Tendulkar, for instance, received an initial one match suspension from match referee Mike Denness after alleged ball tampering in the second test match of India’s 2001 tour of South Africa. (He was subsequently cleared of the charge).

A supposedly squeaky-clean Michael Atherton was less fortunate, receiving a £2,000 fine for rubbing dirt from his pocket onto the ball in the 1994 Lord’s test against South Africa. The dirt itself had been extracted from the pitch.

In 2006, a Test match between Pakistan and England was forfeited after claims by umpires Darrell Hair and Billy Doctrove that ball tampering had taken place. Bitterly protracted, Hair’s judgment and the international governance of cricket, was brought into furious question by the Pakistani team.

Nor can all this be said to be a particularly modern phenomenon. The difference has been catching the sly culprit. Australia’s elusive and daring Keith Miller admitted to lifting the seam on occasion. “If you can do this without being spotted by the umpire and if you can get the ball to pitch on the seam,” he confessed in Cricket Crossfire, “it will fairly fizz through.” That, in an age of less televisual scrutiny.

Talk about equity and fair play rapidly becomes comic, especially when it stems from former players, such as Warne, who gave pitch reports to an Indian bookmaker and took diuretics at the height of his career. The noble game has always boasted its ignoble rogues and its heavy disgraces.

The response to the incident has also been viewed with some dismay, not least of all regarding the insistence from the Australian captain to stay put. Smith may well feel that a call to the principal’s office is in order, but he still holds the view that he is the best man for the captaincy. This view may well be challenged given his decision to saddle the young, potentially doomed Bancroft with the onerous task of executing the deed.

Australian cricket’s self-advertised purity, however misplaced, has been overtly corrupted. It’s “claim to playing hard but fair,” wrote a resigned Geoff Lemon, “has evaporated for years to come.” Even John Cleese, with acid accuracy, felt some remark on the affair was in order. Smith “in admitting ‘ball-tampering’, explained that the team leaders thought it was a way of ‘gaining an advantage’. Another way of ‘gaining an advantage’ is to cheat.”


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  1. paul walter

    I am enduring a mauling via the Black Dog today.

    The government seems likely to get away with its infantile tax cuts for the rich tampering with the spirit and practice of democracy.
    newspapers and newsites have clearly been tampered with to avoid accurate representations of the truth.

    And Steve Smith, Cameron Bancroft and Mark Zuckerberg have followed Richard Di Natale in being caught out in the infantile practice of ball tampering.

    Clearly, younger fellows tampering with their balls is a source of grief for the elders and must plead with every immature man, from Malcolm Turnbull downwards to,

    “Stop it, or you’ll go blind”.

  2. John Ricahrdson

    I couldn’t disagree more with the attempt to hang a fig leaf over the disgusting failure of leadership displayed by Smith that is evident in this article.
    Cheating is cheating & even the players themselves acknowledge what they have done.
    Smith should be out as captain & out of the team. As for the ‘leadership group’, what a splendid way to highlight how stupid such a concept is … are these people children?
    Sadly, the behaviour of our sporting teams has become emblematic of the wider malaise that has gripped our society. As evidenced by our so-called ‘leaders’ in every endeavor in modern Australia, ‘winning’ is everything; no matter how … lying, cheating … whatever it takes.
    We have sunk that low.

  3. Kaye Lee

    I don’t care what other people have done. This was despicable.

    What Smith doesn’t seem to understand is that it is all of we Australians who will bear the shame of this as we have done for so many years about the underarm bowling incident. It isn’t “embarrassing”…it is shameful.

    The other thing Smith doesn’t seem to get is that sometimes you are beaten by a better team at which stage you congratulate them and work on improving.

    I have found the sledging extremely distasteful…to then stoop even lower to blatantly cheat is just beyond the pale.

    If Steve Smith is the best man to captain our team then we should withdraw from international cricket until we can find someone worthy of the job.

  4. paul walter

    John, the culture is dud and has been for a long time.

    This has been an accident waiting to happen, but once again, don’t expect change, not with some of the attitudes displayed to do with the cricketing world.

  5. Keitha Granville

    Immediate loss of the current match, forfeited. It is beyond time for hearings and fines and all that other stuff. Shut the game down and give it to the other team, the whole series maybe in these cases. You can be sure if the fate of the Ashes rested on it there wouldn’t be anyone tempted to cheat.

    Whether Smith falls on his sword, I don’t know. It seems everyone knew about it from Lehman down so maybe they should all be dumped. It’s a shame the bowler hadn’t got the intestinal fortitude to say no. I am reminded of the infamous underarm bowl years ago. Players, if you are asked to do something “not in the spirit of the game “or downright cheating, say NO

  6. paul walter

    Kaye Lee, a sad aspect of this is that Bancroft, a young player, will have his career jeopardised also. Smith is tragic because he is arguably the best batsman in the world and has done a great job of leadership to this point.

    But there has always been a slightly immature facet to this still youngish fella and at this level you can’t get away with little peccadilloes or un-amended traits of the sort demonstrated..

    However, this butch subculture is what the players are encouraged to imbibe for the earliest times in the game and thus older folk need to be held responsible and some of them are in for some deep sadness also, as the game they otherwise know and love receives an almighty setback here in Australia.

  7. paul walter

    Good comment Keitha Granville. Yes, there will be much sadness before this has finally run its course.

  8. Kaye Lee


    I was just thinking to myself that we hold our sportspeople to a much higher standard than we do our politicians.

    My son was a very good cricketer and he has never liked Smith as captain. Watch his facial expressions when someone drops a catch or bowls a bad ball…..he isn’t the sort of captain that can pick someone up and encourage them. He might do well at field placings, he might bat well, but the captain of a team of experienced players like this has a particular role to set the behavioural tone. In that regard, Smith has failed.

    I must add, I will be extremely disappointed if we find out that Darren Lehman knew about the plan beforehand.

  9. John Boyd

    That got the comments flowing!…I note Mr Turnbull’s outrage at this incredible flouting of the rules, admitted by the culprits. Not much from him on the flouting of the rules by the banks, also admitted publicly by the culprits. I can’t believe that we spend so much time discussing the moral position of elite sports persons. Big sport has become just another big business, and vulnerable to the same weaknesses and temptations.I enjoy club rugby.

  10. paul walter


    It’s a tough series and he has cracked under pressure.

    As we see in all sports and much of daily life, the electronic eye now sees even the microscopic, the inch that might have once been not noticed as a footy player in some code, say, scores or not, is monitored, officals overruled and decisions reversed. Traditionalists hate it but the media, ever hungry for a new gimmick, has embraced the electronic game.

    As Bob Ellis used to say, “We will see what we shall see” as to Steve Smith, but oddly parallel to Zuckerberg, here comes to the first check to a hirthoe unblemished stellar career and as with young Mark, Steve’s mishap is disastrous .

  11. paul walter

    John, You find Turnbull’s monumental hypocrisy galling also?

    Could you imagine him ever standing out in the hot sun, bombarded by ninety mile an hour bruising hard balls delivered from the best of their sort in the world?

  12. cjward2017

    I grudingly accept that LJH is a cricket tragic but Turdball? He will take advantage of any situation to present as pious and interested. This is appalling hypocrisy but let’s not forget the role of Sutherland and the NSW First lobby in this debacle. I have little sympathy for Bancroft – he is like a puppy eager to please but the buck stops with the so-called leadership group. Smith, Warner et el are a blight on the game. I once held cricket in great esteem but then came Packerball, underarm bowling and other incidents such as Hanse Cronje to name but one. What is the proice of such behaviour when I see the blatant arrogance of Smith saying he is the best captain for Australia. George Bailey is a healer as well as a leader. Relieve the mafia’s fans – now.

  13. Kaye Lee

    Yes Turnbull was very quick to announce his displeasure about cheating cricketers, a bit quicker than he was to moralise about politicians rooting people other than their wives. But banks admitting to criminal negligence and rorting? Michaelia Cash’s illegal tipping off of the media? Peter Dutton’s countless dreadful judgement calls? Rising emissions? …..Crickets chirping.

  14. Andrew Smith

    Metaphor of Australian elites’ leadership and ethics; whatever it takes.

  15. Matters Not

    Yep the reaction to the ball tampering is swift, powerful and perhaps over the top – as I think it should be. But it’s also illustrative re what the average punter considers to be important. It’s the quality of the bread and circuses – the distractions form things that matter – that causes outrage.

    Something about the inability to see the wood …

    Not hard to predict the future re confessions, promises, sackings who influenced whom … and so on. As for serious issues they – matter not.

  16. johno

    Don’t watch, listen to or care about cricket but was dissapointed to hear about the ball tampering. Agree with Keitha Granville.

  17. Geoff Andrews

    I suppose the only thing in Smith’s favour is that he walked when he was caught. I find it curious that the actual act of tampering was captured in such magnificent, damning close up. Maybe Camera 3, stationed advantageously at ground level had instructions to follow Bancroft closely?

  18. paul walter

    Yes, Geoff. Not sharp enough to realise the implications of changing technology combined with a little malice.

  19. Glenn Barry

    Geoff, those camera operators knew what they were looking for – there was no casual chance or co-incidence in those shots – they were full frame on the long end of the lens and even in slow motion – the room where those plans to cheat were hatched had ears…

  20. Matters Not

    As I understand it, there’s legitimated ball tampering in the form of polishing one side of the ball by rubbing it on the trousers at thigh level and there’s illegitimate ball tampering by rubbing it against … whatever.

    As long as we have our priorities ordered … in the whole scheme of things.

    Should John Howard or Steve Smith, for example, be executed in the court of public opinion?

  21. Glenn Barry

    MN, have you seen the Steve Smith interview? He crucified himself with the delusional statement at the end that he should remain Captain because he was the best suited.

    Howard should just be executed for war crimes – I like the French Solution

  22. Kronomex


  23. ace Jones

    they learnt the cheating and lying when they played as the Prime Minister’s XI Cricket team … Mal wasnt happy they got caught pulling his tricks

  24. johno

    Kronomex, well said.

  25. paul walter

    In short, we must conclude that sportspeople are unwise to tamper with their balls in public places.

  26. silkworm

    I just heard some female Liberal MP trying to exploit this scandal for political advantage by claiming that Bill Shorten was “ball tampering” with the superannuation of retirees. Wow!

  27. Mark Needham

    Players involved should be sacked, dismissed.

    Not cricket,
    Mark Needham

  28. helvityni

    I’m with Knonomex and johno, yawn…

    I walk past Bradman Museum daily on the dog walks, yet have only visited their cafeteria area; I have no interest in viewing any old yellowing cricket jumpers or bats…

  29. Jack

    I’m a little late on this Geoff, but there is no conspiracy with this. TV coverage always focus a camera on the player with the job for ball polishing. Every fielding side usually only has one fieldsman(usually in the covers) that does the ‘ball tampering’. It’s that one fielder’s job to keep one hand dry so they can work on the ball, so to speak. It’s not too difficult for the TV cameras to work out who that player is.

    Usually its Warner, so its very suss that in this occasion it suddenly isn’t him

  30. Michael Taylor

    silky, they’ve sunk low. Just when I didn’t think the bar could be lowered any further … they prove me wrong.

  31. Michael Taylor

    helvityni, I played one game for Cootamundra, the town Bradman was born in.

    They must produce great cricketers, as between Bradman and I we have a batting average just below 100.

  32. paul walter

    We know Bradman’s average. How below a hundred, Michael?

  33. Michael Taylor

    I didn’t bother the scorers much, Paul. Actually, not at all.

    We were 3/9 when I strolled confidently to the crease in the first innings. A ball later we were 4/9.

    But I managed to last an over and a half in my second innings duck. 🦆

    My boast still stands though: between me and Bradman we have an average just under a hundred.

  34. paul walter

    You were a better batsman than I was.

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